Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Vampires

The Philosophy of Horror

Chris Tokuhama

Thomas Fahy, Ed. The Philosophy of Horror. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2010.259 pp. Cloth. ISBN 978-0-8131-2573-2. $39.95.

            The Philosophy of Horror, a collection of essays edited by Thomas Fahy, belongs to a series of volumes called The Philosophy of Popular Culture. The classification is important here as books in the series are targeted toward a general audience and endeavor to introduce traditional philosophical concepts through examples in popular culture. In addition to an introduction by the editor, The Philosophy of Horror contains fourteen chapters that are largely (with two exceptions) grounded in particular media artifacts that span television, film, and print. Mostly based in traditional conceptualizations of the horror genre, the volume also notably includes media that might be classified as “thrillers” (e.g., Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Patrick Süskind’s Perfume), a move that acts to expand the definition of horror beyond a genre in order to encompass an emotional state or a type of relationship between audience and artifact.

            Indeed, editor Thomas Fahy creates this framework through his introduction wherein a story about skydiving allows him to describe the emotive experience of interacting with a piece of horror fiction. Referencing the book’s namesake, Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart, Fahy notes that, at its core, horror presents a paradox:  twin forces of attraction and repulsion, fear and relief, or suffering and justice appear as consistent themes throughout the works that are described with the label of horror. As any scholar of horror will well note, although the setting may appear fantastical, the central issues in any piece of horror are grounded in the human experience. To this end, Fahy notes that the following key philosophical concepts are evidenced throughout the book:  morality, identity, cultural history, and aesthetics.

            Taking the broadest view of horror, the book’s first two chapters—Philip J. Nickel’s “Horror and the Idea of Everyday Life:  On Skeptical Threats in Psycho and The Birds” and Philip Tallon’s “Through a Mirror, Darkly:  Art-Horror as a Medium for Moral Reflection”—each attempt to discern and elucidate the function of horror. Ultimately, both essays reflect upon horror’s ability to explore the fundamental human sense of vulnerability and fragility; in one respect, this sense of insecurity certainly relates to the perennial issue of mortality that pervades most horror but also to the larger philosophical question of morality for horror also forces the question of who gets to live and why. Importantly, however, both authors move past the susceptibility of the human body in order to discuss a wider range of vulnerabilities:  in the tradition of the postmodern, absolutes are questioned and assumptions are questioned in ways that ultimately lead individuals to become introspective as they examine their own preconceptions regarding how the world works and which moral positions are justified.

            In addition, however, the kind of questioning suggested by the book’s first two essays naturally sets the stage for an examination of identity; the process whereby one deconstructs one’s value system almost necessarily involves a period of reflection on who one is to begin with. Dealing with the theme of identity most directly, Amy Kind’s “The Vampire with a Soul:  Angel and the Quest for Identity” thinks through the implications and responsibilities of having a soul. The key contribution Kind puts forth is to divorce the possession of a soul from notions of personhood, instead pondering the way in which a soul makes one an individual. For us as humans, this distinction makes little sense but the realm of the fantastic offers a great space for us to consider how alternate beings (in this case demons, but we might also include androids) do not necessarily become “human,” but can in fact become individuated.

            Moreover, just as Kind’s essay speaks to a need to reevaluate the world and our preconceptions of it, Jessica O’Hara’s “Making Their Presence Known:  TV’s Ghost-Hunter Phenomenon in a ‘Post-’World” uses the trope of paranormal investigation television to think through ways in which the world around us is perceived and how those insights are examined. O’Hara’s work also bridges the gap between identity and cultural history for it, on one level, necessarily juxtaposes the present with the past; one way in which to read the popularity of shows about ghosts is to consider that they may speak to the cultural renegotiation between private and public space in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Although one might make an argument that these ghost shows more prominently feature domestic spaces and therefore privilege the private sphere, a stronger position might suggest that, at their core, ghost stories also speak to the most grievous defilement of privacy and security:  the home invasion.

            This theme of unease with the domestic space is also echoed in John Lutz’s “From Domestic Nightmares to the Nightmare of History,” which looks at subjugation in The Shining on three levels:  domestic, colonialism, and commodification. Much more than a clichéd “things are not what they seem” The Shining ruminates on abuse(s) in various settings and the way in which these themes are circulated throughout our identity as Americans. Unlike the narratives of the ghost hunters, cultural black marks like slavery, internment, and colonization evidence a need for resolution that allows us to appropriately repent and then move forward as we wash our hands of responsibility regarding the violation.

            And violation, it would seem, is also a core component of Jeremy Morris’ “The Justification of Torture-Horror:  Retribution and Sadism in Saw, Hostel¸ and The Devil’s Rejects” and Fahy’s “Hobbes, Human Nature, and the Culture of American Violence in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.” The films of the torture-horror genre—specifically, here, those that have been released in the mid-2000’s and have been wryly labeled “torture porn” for their graphic and voyeuristic elements—obviously and overtly speak to a type of violation of the body that clearly aligns with a desecration of the self and, resultantly, one’s identity. Returning to the ever-present paradox in horror, Morris looks at the unstable definitions of torturer and tortured and questions how we, to a degree, participate in both roles. Moreover, we once again witness the familiar themes of powerlessness and agency that appear in O’Hara’s essay on ghost hunting while also transforming these issues into something more visceral and personal. Films like Saw and Hostel not only cause us to contemplate the unpleasantness of having torture visited upon ourselves but also ways in which we are complicit in torture or, as an extreme, might participate in the torture of others in order to preserve our own safety. Along with Fahy’s essay on Capote’s In Cold Blood, Morris asks us to think past “senseless” violence in order to consider the unsettling realization that we are all harboring secret monsters and capable of untold brutality if pressured.

            In a way, Fahy’s essay works to transition between Morris and Lorena Russell’s “Ideological Formations of the Nuclear Family in The Hills Have Eyes” as it continues to ruminate on the capacity for violence even as it gestures beyond violation of the person toward a transgression of interpersonal structures. In the case of Fahy and Capote, we are witness to the aftermath that permeates a small town in the wake of a vicious murder while Russell chooses to examine the way in which The Hills Have Eyes comments on the breakdown of the nuclear family. Centering her arguments in the ideology of the family, Russell presents a series of arguments about the family that continue to resonate today; in particular, one of the strongest points that Russell makes is to consider how the original film and its remake speak to the growing divide between urban and rural sensibilities (here it should be noted that the horror films of the 1970s often spoke to this disjuncture, although such critique was not usually tied so closely to family structures). Like with most films in the genre, the real horror is realizing that the term “monster” is relative and that we are all monsters in a given light; moreover, the danger presented by those who are like us is often the more hazardous as it represents the threat that we never see coming.

            Shifting away from identity and toward cultural history, we also have John Lutz’ “Zombies of the World, Unite:  Class Struggle and Alienation in Land of the Dead,” and Paul A. Cantor’s “The Fall of the House of Ulmer:  Europe vs. America in the Gothic Vision of The Black Cat.” Although well argued, Lutz’ essay adds the least to the its respective field of study as it retreads upon the position that zombies can be read as critiques on class and race in America. Cantor’s essay, on the other hand, provides an interesting counterpoint to the rest of the essays in the book as it uses The Black Cat to think through foreign perceptions of America in the post-World War I period.

            This element of critical commentary focuses on the aesthetic in the final essays of the book—Susann Cokal’s “’Hot with Rapture and Cold with Fear’:  Grotesque, Sublime, and Postmodern Tranformation in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume,” Robert F. Gross’ “Shock Value:  A Deleuzean Encounter with James Purdy’s Narrow Rooms,” Ann C. Hall’s “Making Monsters:  The Philosophy of Reproduction in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and the Universal Films Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein,” and David MacGregor Johnston’s “Kitch and Camp and Things That Go Bump in the Night; or Sontag and Adorno at the (Horror) Movies”—and resembles more traditional forms of film analysis. Of the four, Johnston and Gross’ essays are the most enlightening, although the latter may well represent the most challenging piece to read in the entire book.

            With its range in topics and perspectives, The Philosophy of Horror is a good choice for those who are fans of horror or who are looking to situate themselves within the field of study. The essays in this volume may very well spark a reader’s interest and introduce new arguments but will also undoubtedly leave them reaching for a more substantive volume on their subject of inquiry.

Chris Tokuhama is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where he studies how the definition of “the body” is being contested in American culture. Particularly interested in the confluence of horror, religion, gender, and youth, Chris is currently working on projects that explore the ways in which children are configured in the shadow of apocalypse, catastrophe, and trauma.

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Not Just for Suckers

Queen Mab, faerie queen from Season 4 of True Blood

As I’ve grown older, I have to increasingly come to appreciate the ways in which I have managed to pursue an academic discipline that affords me the ability to watch copious amounts of television. Who would have thought that I could go to school to watch vampires on TV? And yet here I am.

But as much as I watch television for fun, I also constantly find myself turning a critical eye to the subject at hand. A long-time fan of mythology and the power of narrative, I often think about how characters and tropes in television shows reflect, articulate, and create new aspects of culture. Very much in alignment with Stuart Hall’s notion of decoding/encoding, I believe that television is dissected by viewers and the pieces are shuffled around to enact new forms of meaning.

As such, I’m quite intrigued by the viewers of shows like True Blood (HBO, 2008-present). Over the years, vampires have been theorized to embody issues of gender (e.g., Nina Auerbach’s Our Vampires, Ourselves), sexuality (Camilla and the lesbian vampire or James Twitchell’s work on the fears of male heterosexuality), and medicine and the body (Ludmilla Jordanova’s Sexual Visions:  Images of Gender and Medicine and Science between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries). And while these themes are still relevant to contemporary culture, I think that it would be interesting to investigate issues of authenticity and representation in a show like True Blood.[1]

Sookie as a Faerie, Season 4 of True Blood

Although this past season featured a number of references to illusion, appearance, and authenticity (ranging from introduction of faeries—long known to be notorious visual tricksters—to politicians and amnesia), the series itself has also wrestled with “realness” over its run. Whether it is vampires struggling with their “true nature,” the duplicity of organized religion, or relationships wherein one is cruel to be kind, I’m curious to examine how viewers interpret themes of authenticity and employ these incidents as references or models of behavior. How, for example, do viewers navigate the multiple layers of reality that exist on the show? How do stereotypes (i.e., “this is what you say I am) meld with religious themes (with an underlying current of “this body/life is not all that I am) and the lingering accusation of “Are you now or have you ever been a vampire?” Are the contemporary interpretations of vampires consistent with previous ways of thinking? Who watches the show and with whom? Do viewers watch a show multiple times (and does their understanding of the show evolve)?

Admittedly, one might be able to develop a rich body of work as a result of conducting a media ethnography on a show like True Blood but one should also be mindful of who is left out of this type of investigation, namely that one might miss the effects that a particular program has outside of its primary viewership. Obviously researchers must eventually decide who to examine in the process of ethnography as resources are not unlimited; this reality does not, however, excuse researchers from clearly labeling the bounds of their inquiry and articulating the limitations of their work. But, if we follow the argument that media can constitute culture, we can see how individuals may interact with a particular property at the level of culture without ever viewing the source material.

True Blood (top)/True Mud (below)

Take, for example, the Sesame Street short “True Mud,” which is roughly based on HBO’s True Blood. Here we see the potential for a wonderfully rich and complex set of meanings as Sesame Street appropriates a popular (and very adult) television show in order to wink at parents who might have seen True Blood. Although a portion of parents watching the “True Mud” skit might think back to an episode of True Blood, there are also assuredly parents who understand the reference but have never seen the show or parents who have no idea that “True Mud” is a parody of anything. These parents would most likely not consider themselves viewers of True Blood but their voices might tell researchers something about how True Blood fits into a larger media ecology.

Watching the clip, one immediately begins to develop a host of questions. What is the importance of the Southern setting and what does such an environment evoke for viewers of “True Mud” and True Blood? How does this contrast in setting relate to the environment of Sesame Street, which is urban? What is the demographic makeup of audiences for “True Mud” and True Blood and how does this constitution affect the way that the South is understood in relation to the property? How and why does the concept of a vampire map onto a grouch from Sesame Street? How does this presentation of a grouch differ from Oscar?

Ultimately, interviewing viewers of a property allows researchers to develop a complex understanding of the ways in which a piece of media might influence individuals but we must also recognize that the impact of media does not just stop with those who watch it directly. References made in pop culture, interpersonal interactions, or even children’s shows indicate that media can exhibit echoes as it permeates our lives.


[1] As a side note, this theme has been something that has been building up steam for a couple of years as I am curious about the seeming need for characters who can see through the veil or otherwise ascertain a measure of “objective” truth. We’ve seen shows like The Mentalist and Psych that feature incredibly observant individuals; Lie to Me, which concerned itself with Paul Ekman’s micro-expressions and truth telling, Ringer and The Vampire Diaries, which both feature doppelgängers, and Once Upon a Time and Grimm that both prominently feature a character who can see things that others can’t.


Legends of the Fall

When reading the fiction of Cordwainer Smith, I found myself making connections to Richard Matheson‘s I Am Legend. Although I would classify I Am Legend as more of a horror story than a work of Science Fiction—that being said, the genres have a tendency to overlap and a strict distinction, for this current article, is not necessary—both pieces were published in the 1950s, a time assuredly rife with psychological stress. Although we certainly witness an environment coming to terms with the potential impact of mass media and advertising (see discussion from last week’s class), I also associate the time period with the incredible mental reorganization that resulted for many due to the increased migration to the suburbs—a move that would cause many to grapple with issues of competition, conformity, routine, and paranoia. In a way, just as 1950s society feared, the threat did really come from within.

And “within,” in this case, did not just mean that one’s former neighbors could, one day, wake up and want to eat you (one of the underlying themes in zombie apocalypse films set in suburbia) but also that one’s mental state was subject to bouts of dissatisfaction, depression, and isolation. Neville (the last human in Matheson’s book, who must fight off waves of vampires) and each of the protagonists in Smith’s stories is othered in their own ways and although Smith overtly points to themes of empowerment/disenfranchisement, I could not help but wonder about the psychological stress that each character endured as a result of a sense of isolation. Martel (“Scanners Live in Vain“) fights to retain his humanity (and connection to it) through his wife and cranching, Elaine (“The Dead Lady of Clown Town“) falls in love with the Hunter and fuses with D’joan while Lord Jestocost (“The Ballad of Lost C’mell“) falls in love with an ideal, and finally Mercer (“A Planet Named Shayol“) unwittingly chooses community over isolation by refusing to give up his personality and eyesight.

Throughout the stories of Matheson and Smith, we see that the end result of warfare is a shift in (or acceptance of) a new form of ideology. (This makes sense particularly if we take Smith’s position from Psychological Warfare that “Freedom cannot be accorded to persons outside the ideological pale,” indicating that there will necessarily be winners and losers in the battle necessitated by differences in ideology.) In particular, however, I found “Scanners Live in Vain” and “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” most interesting in that their conclusions point to the mythologizing of characters (Parizianski and Elaine), which is the same sort of realization had by Matheson’s Neville as he comes to terms with the concept that although he was, in his own story, the protagonist, he will be remembered as a conquered antagonist of new humanity. Neville, like Parizianski and Elaine, has become legend.

Ultimately, I think that Smith’s stories weave together a number of interrelated questions:  “What is the role of things that have become obsolete?” “What defines a human (or humanity)?” “How is psychological warfare something that is not just done to us by other, but by ourselves?” and, finally, “If psychological warfare is an act that is committed to replace and eradicate ‘faulty’ ideology, what is our role in crafting a new system of values and myths. What does it mean that we become legends?”


The Agony and the Ecstasy

To this day, I still remember the first time that I rejected Gender Studies as a valid area of concern:  in college, a friend had joined the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance and I had declined an invitation to attend. I was, at the time, sympathetic toward women but still too caught up in notions of second wave feminism to identify with a cause in any formal way (well, that and the challenge to the already fragile male ego made joining such an organization an impossibility for me at the time). I am not proud of this moment, but not particularly ashamed either—it was what it was.

How ironic, then, that issues of gender have become one of my primary focuses in media:  the representation, construction, configuration, positioning, and subversion of gender is what often excites me about the texts that I study. Primarily rooted in Horror and Science Fiction, I look at archetypes ranging from the Final Girl and New Male (Clover, 1992), to the sympathetic/noble male and predatory lesbian vampires of the 1970s, to the extreme sexualities of the future.

In particular, I enjoy the genres of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction because they allow us to grapple with deeply-seeded thoughts, feelings, and attitudes in ways that we could never confront directly. And, unlike traditional religion, which often attempts to tackle “the big questions” head on, media can provide a space to explore and experiment as we struggle to find the answers that we so desperately seek. The challenge for our students is that so much of American culture is steeped in traditions that reflect underlying aspects of patriarchy; from economics, to religion, to politics and culture, America’s values, thought, and language have been influenced by patriarchal hegemony (King, 1993). All of a sudden, we begin to question what we have been taught and wonder how history has been inscribed by men, afforded privilege to males, restricted the power of the female, and subjugated the female body (Creed, 1993).

And, the female body, as a site of contestation, provides a solid point of entry for a discussion of gender issues; gender is inextricably linked with sex—Clover, for example, argues that sex follows gender performance in Horror films (1992)—and also inseparable from discussion of the bodies that manifest and enact issues of gender. Consider how women’s bodies have traditionally been tied to notions of home, family, and reproduction. The basic biological processes inherent to women serve to define them in a way that is inescapable; as opposed to the hardness of men, women are soft, permeable, and oozing. On another level, we are treated to an examination of the female body through depictions of birth gone awry:  from Alien, to possession (and its inevitable consequence of female-to-male transformation), to devil spawn, we have been conditioned to understand women as the bearers of the world’s evil.

Issues of birth also raise important notions at the intersection of science, gender, and the occult. Possession movies, in particular, have an odd history of female “victims” that undergo a series of medical tests (evidencing a binary that our class has come to label as Science vs. Magic/Faith) and feature male doctors who typically try to figure out what’s wrong with the female patient—they are literally trying to determine her secret (Burfoot & Lord, 2006). Looking at this theme in a larger context, we reference the Enlightenment (which was previously discussed in our course) and La Specola’s wax models as examples of scientific movements in the 17th century (and again in the 19th century) that sought to wrest secrets from the bodies of women, evidencing a fascination with the miracle of birth and understanding the human (particularly female) body. (La Specola as a public museum had an interesting role in introducing images of the female body into visual culture and into the minds of the public.) Underscoring the presence of wax models is a desire to delve deeper, peeling away the successive layers of the female form in order to “know” her (echoes of this same process can assuredly be found in modern horror films). It seems, then, that the rise of Science has coincided with an increased desire to deconstruct the female body (and, by extension, the female identity).

In similar ways, we saw echoes of this mentality embodied by Daniel Graystone as he struggled to understand Automaton Zoe’s secret earlier in the season. Speaking to a larger ideology of Science/Reason/Logic as the ultimate path to truth (as opposed to emotion/intuition), we again see an example of the female body being probed. And although Automaton Zoe is not a cyborg in the strictest sense of the term, we can understand her as a synthesis of human/machine components–this then allows us to incorporate previous readings on the presence of the female cyborg in Science Fiction.

Given our class’ focus on faith in television, however, we can also consider how female transgression has roots in Christian tradition as demonstrated by the story of Eve (which is also a story about the consequences of female curiosity in line with Pandora and Bluebeard)—how many ways can we keep women in check?

Restricting depictions of female sexuality and pleasure represents one such method according to Kimberly Pierce, director of Boys Don’t Cry (Dick, 2006). Tied to a morality influenced (in America, at least) by Christianity, we have come to consider sexuality (in general, and female sexuality in particular) as something sinful and worthy of shame. We see sex as something grounded in the material, or indicative of lust; sex, necessary on a biological level, can cause tension as we fail to reconcile its presence in our lives.

Addressing this notion, Gary Laderman argues that we might benefit from a reconsideration of our moral position on sex and religion, likening an orgasm to a religious epiphany or ritual. In essence, Laderman suggests that, as we climax we are released from the concerns of this world (even if for just a moment!) and exist in a timeless space where our individual sense of self melts as we commune with an entity/feeling that is larger than ourselves (2009). Put simply, we transcend. Further, as we continue with issues of the sacred and sex, we begin to see that the relationship between religion and sexuality becomes more complex as we look to Saint Teresa (as popularized by Bernini’s sculpture) and Saint Sebastian with an eye toward BDSM. Here, we have religious ecstasy depicted in visual terms that mirror the orgasmic andcontend with issues of penetration with respect to male and female bodies.

Picking up on the discrepancies between male and female bodies, our class began to note ways in which traditional gender archetypes of male and female were challenged by “Things We Lock Away” (herehereherehere, and here) while others chose to examine the ways in which lived religion was embodied by females. Are these particular manifestations of lived religion typical for women? To what extent does the show support traditional gender norms and it what ways does it challenge them (if at all)? We can argue that Zoe takes charge of her life, but she does so by ascribing to the role of “Woman Warrior,” a role that might be viewed as empowering, but is, in fact, degenerative as aspects of femininity are stripped away–in becoming a warrior, the female transforms her body into that of a male through the use of force. (We can also certainly talk about the imagery conveyed by the sword as Zoe’s weapon of choice.) Women, in short, are powerful when they emulate men. Contrast this with portrayals of the “new” female hero as seen through the eyes of Miyazaki (Spirited Away) or del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and we begin to understand just how much Zoe ascribes to traditional notions of masculine/feminine.

But all is not lost. “Things We Lock Away” saw the birth of Chip Zoe (in reference to Chip Six from Battlestar Galactica), who, like her namesake, represented a manifestation of the divine born out of a connection with that which makes us human. Recasting power in terms of self-acceptance and love, the truly progressive feminist heroes and heroines are the ones who tap into the strength that we all have, showing us that we all have the potential to become more than we ever thought that we could (think Buffy before and after the end of Season 7 minus the Slayer Potential birthright).

But, as we all know, braving the depths of ourselves and coming back alive is no easy task–we need only look back at “There Is Another Sky” in order to understand just how fraught this path is. And so, throughout the episode, we see examples of people suppressing and repressing their base instincts:  running to V world and indulging in illicit behavior in order to remain “civilized” in Caprica City; the lingering shot of Daniel’s floor, upon which Tom Vergis’ blood will forever be inscribed (notice the one at peace is the one who acknowledged the brutality of the situation at hand); Amanda and Lacy allaying their guilt over their acts of betrayal; Tamara clinging to her human identity as the only sense of self that she’s ever known. When it comes to our humanity, we hide, protect, obsess over, and fetishize the best and worst parts of ourselves; if only we could take a page or two from the new hero and realize that the answer has always been–and will always be–love.